This essay is part of our collection “Advice for Donald Trump.” Read related pieces here.
Dear Mr. Trump,
The person who occupies the office of president stands as an example to Americans, and to the world, of our values and priorities. Indeed, the moral life and marital history of the president of the United States is very important to individuals, families, and the nation. This truth applies not only to the president’s public policies and speeches but also to the manner in which he or she exhibits honor, integrity, and commitment in family life. Most often the source of a healthy, happy family life is a stable, intact marriage.
While high-profile “conscious uncoupling” and supposedly happily-ever-after divorce may suggest that marriage vows no longer matter in America, this simply isn’t true. Young Americans need to know—now more than ever—that lifelong, faithful marriage is not only desirable, but possible. As a politician, you need to know that it’s also necessary for the future flourishing of our republic.
Mr. Trump, you have suggested your own marital infidelities are irrelevant to your campaign for the presidency. You have bragged about your extramarital exploits. In your book, The Art of the Deal, you write: “If I told the real stories of my experiences with women, often seemingly very happily married and important women, this book would be a guaranteed best-seller.” Just this weekend The New York Times published an exposé detailing your sexualized treatment of women who worked with or performed for you.
But to the millions of victims of the Ashley Madison revelations of last summer, and to all who have experienced its effects, infidelity is no joke. Cheating destroys marriages, devastates children and families, and shatters lives.
You have made reviving the economy a central issue of your campaign. But national marriage trends are not private matters to be set aside during presidential campaigns, as though unrelated to “more important” public matters like economic growth.
If you hope to Make America Great Again, you will need to understand the contributions marriage and family life made to our greatness in the first place. More urgently, you’ll need a firm grasp of the current state of marriage and the forces that threaten it. You then must use your aptly named bully pulpit to promote the truth that faithful marriage matters deeply to the flourishing of our republic.
The State of Marriage in Contemporary America
Marriage is in a fragile state, Mr. Trump, and in dire need of attention. Between 40 and 50 percent of all first marriages in the United States are projected to end in divorce. And while the divorce rate has stabilized among the college-educated, it is on the rise among baby boomers and high school graduates without four-year college degrees (the latter constituting a majority of the general population).
Evidence of the “gray divorce revolution” is particularly worrisome because older adults are role models for their children and grandchildren—precisely the cohorts who are choosing in rapidly increasing numbers to forgo, or delay, marriage in favor of cohabitation. Many of these young people are understandably cynical about the prospect of steadfast marriage because they haven’t witnessed it in their own families. This malformed view of marriage is further fueled by the “soul mate” model of relationships currently held by many young adults, in which emotional highs and lows prevail over commitment, and “love” exists only in the absence of discomfort or sacrifice.
The marriage rate is the lowest ever recorded, unmarried cohabitation is rapidly becoming an acceptable alternative to marriage, and a full 40 percent of children are born outside the safe embrace of a married mother and father. Among numerous other negative associations, these trends have been linked to lower net worth and economic mobility, poverty, and dependence on state-provided welfare—for women and children, in particular.
Threats to Marriage
Mr. Trump, you need not look far for explanations of these trends.
As a businessman, you know and appreciate the power of the legal contract. The “no fault” divorce regime, under which Americans have been living for almost five decades, made marriage the only legal contract that is literally unenforceable. All that is needed for a marriage to end—as you know well—is for one spouse to decide to move on (your own philosophy of “moving on,” while fascinating, didn’t quite meet the standard of decency required by this publication). As a result, many divorces take place against the will of a spouse who still has hope for the marriage. The ripple effect of “no fault” has been deep and wide, affecting even those whose primary role is to save marriages. Some research suggests that marriage counseling is no longer a safe investment, as couples who seek marital therapy are more likely to divorce than couples who forgo it altogether.
Those who travel regularly for their jobs often find themselves faced with pornography in their hotel rooms because of the lucrative revenue stream it creates for proprietors. Among other distinctions, Mr. Trump, you would be the first US president to have posed on the cover of Playboy. But even Time magazine (along with the state of Utah) has acknowledged what you seem to have missed: the widespread use and availability of pornography is a public health crisis.
Contrary to the myth that it will spice things up in a stale marriage, a growing body of research suggests that regular use of internet pornography is fraught with risk for marriages. A 2014 study showed that those who had watched pornography in the past year were more likely to be divorced, more likely to have had an extramarital affair, and less likely to report being happy with their marriage, or happy in general. Further, the negative association between pornography use and marital well-being was found to have grown stronger over time as pornography has become more readily available and its content more explicit. Not surprisingly, and as described in Time, men who use pornography regularly have trouble meeting the physical requirements for normal sexual relations with real, human women.
Visits to strip clubs—like the ones you have in your hotel, Mr. Trump—have been normalized through the help of television shows like “How I Met Your Mother.” Far from providing the light-hearted fun the purveyors of the “boys will be boys” mentality would have us believe, these seedy locales undermine marital relationships and degrade both those in the audience and their loved ones at home, all while profiting from the subjugation of abused and trafficked women.
Apps like Tinder are training entire generations in the belief that human beings are to be used and then discarded like trash. Many times, it is women who are on the receiving end of this cycle of use and abuse. And while you claim to “love women,” your own rhetoric on women—including a rather distasteful remark about your own daughter—suggests to these two women (and mothers) that you have a long way to go in your understanding of where our true value lies.
Our Nation Needs Stable, Intact Marriages
Mr. Trump, evidence of the retreat from marriage is clear and compelling. We know that divorce harms children in many serious ways, that around two-thirds of divorces occur in low-conflict marriages, and that the most common reasons for divorce revolve around normal problems that occur in most marriages (e.g., “growing apart”). We know that children of divorce are themselves more likely to divorce and that more and more young people are choosing cohabitation before marriage, which is associated with higher rates of divorce and infidelity. Even divorcees are increasingly choosing to cohabit rather than remarry—a distinctly precarious situation for children.
These trends do not exist in a vacuum. You claim you will fix our economy by helping us “win” at business and restricting free trade. Yet thus far you have failed to show any understanding of how the American family structure contributes to our ability to “win” economically. According to a recent report, nearly one third of the growth in income inequality over the last three and a half decades was driven by the decreasing number of Americans who maintain stable, married families. The same is true for over a third of the decline in men’s employment rate.
Growing up in a stable, intact family remains one of the best predictors of positive life outcomes for men and women across the economic spectrum; choosing to have one’s children only in the context of a marriage remains the best safeguard against poverty. Married men put in more hours, work more strategically, and earn more money than their unmarried counterparts. If you want to make America great again, you cannot afford to ignore the role stable marriage plays in motivating our labor force and in our nation’s economic growth as a whole.
In fact, it is precisely the population for whom the retreat from marriage and the breakdown of family life has been most dramatic in recent years—the white working class of Charles Murray’s Fishtown—whose anger at “the establishment” has given you your presumptive nominee status. These individuals may share the sentiments behind your rhetoric that blames their plight on Mexicans, Muslims, and the Washington establishment, but their own choices in the marriage market bear a greater share of the responsibility for their disenfranchisement and disconnectedness. They may think they need your wall to feel “great again,” but what they need is a healthy marriage and family life.
Finally, perhaps most crucially, our nation needs marriage because we need free citizens. As Stella Morabito pointed out last week at The Federalist, mothers who, through marriage, are able to devote themselves to raising children and cultivating their virtues “are the ultimate force for de-centralizing and distributing power in society.” We would add the critical role of fathers to this decentralizing force. It is the strength of the most private sphere of society—the family—that is the biggest threat to dictatorship and the most necessary condition for a free, self-governing people.
At the risk of repeating the obvious: the future “greatness” of our country depends a great deal on how we raise our children today. The best way to ensure these children will grow into adults who can govern themselves well is to foster their parents’ marriages.
Cause for Hope
In the midst of these dismal trends, there is hope. Our experience confirms that many young adults are increasingly aware that infidelity, divorce, and cohabitation cause measurable harm. They are ready to do things differently and to avoid the divorce and serial marriages that plagued many of their parents (and grandparents).
This new generation was well-represented at a recent conference at Princeton University organized by the Love & Fidelity Network, a group comprising thousands of young adults aimed at “building the next generation of leaders for marriage, family, and sexual integrity.” During the three-day conference, at which both of us presented, over 300 college students from around the country eagerly sought answers to their toughest questions on the state of marriage from the nation’s top marriage and family scholars.
Mr. Trump: over a decade ago, when students were getting this first-ever pro-marriage campus organization off the ground, you took the opportunity to publicly mock them on your radio show, calling students who opted out of sex on campus “a problem.” These young men and women are not the problem. They want to be the generation who stops the bleeding and revitalizes our wounded marriage culture, but they need leaders who won’t undermine their efforts.
To be clear: this is not an issue of politics. Both political parties have given us examples of faithful and unfaithful marriage in presidents. We’ve witnessed national turmoil when a Democratic president failed to respect his marital vows. And we’ve seen sustained damage to the institution of marriage from the no-fault divorce legislation of a Republican governor who later, as president, called the law “one of the worst mistakes he ever made in office.”
The family is the bedrock of every civilized culture, and marriage is the foundation of the family. The state of marriage today has deep and wide implications for our country’s future. Our president must be able to speak with confidence, authority, and credibility on marriage—why it matters, what threatens it, and how best to strengthen it.
In your campaign, you have chosen not to speak about the important role stable marriages and family life play in making our country great. Perhaps this is because you believe that family fragmentation has contributed to your own success. Perhaps it is because you have not found a tumultuous marital history to have been a hindrance. But, as in most areas, your experience is anomalous. Most of us depend on a healthy marriage culture to survive, let alone to flourish. We sincerely hope that you will start taking faithful marriage seriously as you set your sights on making America great again.
Marriage requires a disposition toward personal sacrifice and an attitude of loving service. So does the presidency. Mr. Trump, we sincerely hope you are up to the challenge.
Hilary Towers is a developmental psychologist and author.